How to Think about Your Thinking

by Dr. John Townsend

So how can you become a wise, sober-minded person of good judgment–one who thinks rather than reacts and routinely utilizes internal as well as external data? Start by becoming an observer of how you think. It may sound strange to think about thinking, but it is important and helpful. You can begin to pay attention to your thinking by routinely observing your thoughts and by recognizing any cognitive distortions.

Observe Your Thoughts–Without Trying to Control Them

Life is chaotic, and sometimes too much information can cause confusion in an organization. As a result, leaders are under great pressure to think with focus and direction. It is an important task. Sometimes, however, leaders interpret a need for clarity as a need to control their thoughts and keep them directed and precise. This is a problem. Leaders need to provide clarity to their organizations, but they need to also observe where their thoughts are leading and what they mean. There is much value that can come from observing your thoughts.

For example, think about someone in your organization who, when you are engaged in a conversation with him for more than a minute or two, your thoughts begin to wander. It can be like the movie scenes where a bored high-school student enters some daydream while his teacher drones on, then startles back to reality when she stands over him, saying, "Do you understand my question?" When talking to this person at work, you find yourself thinking about golf, lunch, or your date that night. As a result, you miss what the other person is saying and have to quickly catch up somehow so he won't notice.

You may be tired. You may not be interested in the topic. But there are other reasons you may be thinking those particular imaginative thoughts. And if you understand those reasons, they can point to something valuable for you, the leader. For example:

  • He rambles on about details no one cares about, and he needs to be coached to be succinct.
  • He talks in an egocentric way about only his perceptions, and he needs to be helped to consider other people's experiences and viewpoints.
  • You are annoyed with him about something, so you detach from him via your imagination. You may need to rectify that.
  • He is bringing you negative news you don't want to hear. You may need to hear it anyway.
  • You can't sufficiently detach from whatever you were doing and pay attention to him. You may need to refocus on him and return to the previous issue after the conversation.

Do you see all the potential these observations have to add value to your leadership? You can go beyond the symptom to the root cause and deal with it effectively. This is a far better use of your time and energy than not questioning your experience because, more often than not, the problem will only get worse over time.

The point is, you need to be willing to look at not only what you are thinking but how you are thinking. This process will pay off for you in the long term.

Recognize Cognitive Distortions

As part of observing your thoughts, you also need to be aware of ways your thoughts can be distorted or misleading. Psychologists refer to these biases as cognitive distortions, or patterns of thinking that aren't reality-based and therefore hinder your productivity. There are several distortions that can hamper a leader's thinking. As you read through the list below, see if you recognize any of these patterns in your own thinking and decision making.
  • Helplessness—the sense of "I've tried and nothing helps," as if there are no choices available to you.
  • Passivity—a pattern in which you are afraid or hesitant to take initiative, so you wait for someone or some circumstance to provide the solution.
  • Negativity—a well-known pattern in leaders in which there is an imbalance of negative over positive. It is often justified as being "realistic," but it is generally built on fear of failure, not reality.
  • Self-protective rationalizing—a scenario in which you are unable to own your own contribution to a problem or to see another person's feedback as superior, so you rationalize your position to the point of uselessness.
  • One-solution thinking—the idea that there is only one answer to a situation. This kind of thinking is very limited and is usually produced by anxiety or a perfectionist streak. For example, "We need more clients in our medical center, so let's advertise more." Who knows, maybe it's that plus community outreach plus better pricing plus warmer customer relationships. Sometimes there is only one answer, but most of the time there are several. The best thinking occurs when you look at various scenarios and play them out, either in your mind or with others.
  • False-self thinking—when you try to be someone you're not by projecting an idealized or false version of yourself. You do this either to please people with that image or to keep yourself from seeing your own faults. It becomes a very restricted way of living and leading.

We all have some of these patterns to one degree or another. Identify the ones you might be challenged by. Then do a reality check with a couple of trusted and honest people who know you well. If the patterns exist, commit a thirty-day practice of reviewing the decisions you make each day. For each decision, look for any evidence of the cognitive distortion patterns you identified. Simply being aware of your patterns will go a long way in helping you to correct the problem. Once you are more aware, then ask a couple of well-grounded people, "How would you have thought about this issue?" Having others model healthy ways of thinking will help you to continue moving yourself in that direction.


Taken from Leading from Your Gut: How You Can Succeed by Harnessing the Power of Your Values, Feelings, and Intuition by Dr. John Townsend. Click here to learn more about this title.

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